books 

2019.02.11Early in The Empty Throne

The front cover of the book The Empty Throne by Daalder & Lindsay, published by Public Affairs Books.
Image credit: Public Affairs Books


Image credit: Public Affairs Books


I'm only a few pages in, and The Empty Throne has already impressed, with the best description of Trumpism I've read yet. Framed against the rules based new world order the US championed after World War II, and how it is failing to maintain in the context of the 21st century globalization:

The rapid growth in the movement of goods, money, people, and ideas across borders -- globalization, as it came to be called -- produced more problems and at a faster rate than national governments could handle. International institutions seemed stuck in the Cold War, unable to grapple with these new transnational challenges.... American leadership ... hoped to get "responsible stakeholders" [as allies] who would gradually take on more responsibilities while still deferring to Washington's lead. They instead got countries that often preferred free riding on Washington's efforts or championing their own ideas for improvements to the rules-based order.... Donald Trump recognized many of the problems bedeviling America's role in the world.... But unlike all of his predecessors since Truman, he didn't see global leadership as the solution to what ailed America. To the contrary. He saw it as the problem. America's alliance committments had, in his view, required the United States to "pay billions -- hundreds of billions of dollars to supporting other countries that are in theory wealthier than we are." America's trade policies had "de-industrialized America, uprooting our industry, and stripped bare towns like Detroit and Baltimore." ... What Trump was offering was a return to a foreign policy based the logic of competition and domination.... Trump's first year and a half in office sent an unmistakeable message. He had no interest in leading America's friends and allies. He was looking to beat them. His was not a win-win world, but a world of winners and losers.... Trump was comfortable abdicating American leadership because he saw no value in it -- just costs.

I've distilled for you what I found to be the most level and unbiased description of the president's foreign policy I've seen.


My Comment

I find this important and amazing insight, because the president's approach to government seems nearly perfectly reflected in how he operates with politicians over Twitter. He has nothing... presidential... to say to anyone who isn't aboard the Trump Train. All he has for them are insults and threats: techniques of domination.

The book quoted him from, presumably, The Art of the Deal (emphasis mine): "You hear lots of people say that a great deal is when both sides win," [Trump] once wrote. "That is a bunch of crap. In a great deal you win -- not the other side. You crush the opponent and come away with something better for yourself."

On Twitter, almost nightly, Trump caws at any he perceives as an opponent.



"Crooked Hillary" Clinton. "Leakin' James Comey". "Lyin' Ted" Cruz (a fellow Republican, but a political opponent early in the 2012 race). The list goes on. This isn't about competition. Competition does not include ad hominem attacks.

It's about domination. Everything he does is about domination. Why was he so proud to shut down the government for a month? Domination. Why are we headed for another shutdown? Domination. He is incapable of compromise; win-win is anathema. He's wired only for the great deal, and for crushing the opposition.



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2019.02.09Next Read: The Empty Throne by Ivo Daalder and James M. Lindsay

The front cover of the book The Empty Throne by Daalder & Lindsay, published by Public Affairs Books.
Image credit: Public Affairs Books


Image credit: Public Affairs Books


The subtitle drew me to this book: "America's Abdication of Global Leadership."



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2019.01.13Next Read: Proof of Collusion by Seth Abramson

The front cover of the book Proof of Collusion: How Trump Betrayed America by Seth Abramson, published by Simon & Schuster.
Image credit: Simon & Schuster


Image credit: Simon & Schuster


One thing I've learned in an annual review of my posts is that I've stepped up my reading game since our country went to shi-- I mean, since the dawn of the current administration.

Today's bookstore impulse buy is Proof of Collusion: How Trump Betrayed America, written by Seth Abramson and published by Simon & Schuster in 2018.

As soon as I get this post published, I'm going to curl up with a couple of fingers of bourbon and dive into this book.



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2018.05.20The Assault on Intelligence

The title of the book 'The Assault on Intelligence' by Gen. Michael Hayden
Image credit: Penguin Press

The cover of 'The Assault on Intelligence' by Gen. Michael Hayden
Image credit: Penguin Press

If I had to characterize Gen. Hayden's The Assault on Intelligence: American National Security in an Age of Lies as a food, or a food component, I'd say it's bran: it's meant for more mature audiences, and you don't eat it because it's tasty; you eat it because it's good for you.

Also, too much at once can become hard to chew.

To give you a good sense of the kind of book this is, fully 1/3 of it is end notes and index. My kindle showed I was 66% complete when I reached the afterword.


As Advertised

Gen. Hayden's book is exactly what it says it is: a study of executive level politics and associated events, starting late in the 2016 presidential election cycle and moving through to 2018, studying their impact on the US Intelligence Community (IC) -- particuarly at its senior levels -- and on national sentiment.

Gen. Hayden meticulously and measuredly recounts and addresses the events, actions and accusations that impacted the credibility and distinguished careers of IC leadership.

"Rejecting a fact-based intelligence assessment - not because of compelling contrarian data, but because it was inconsistent with a preexisting worldview or because it was politically inconvenient-- is the stuff of idological authoritarianism, not pragmatic democracy."

But he also offers his views on world events not directly tied to the Trump Administration. On North Korea, which Gen. Hayden viewed as "the toughest intelligence target on earth," and "a pathetic, pathological, and truly irritating little gangster state", he writes:

No doubt Pyongyang would use the occasion [of denuclearization talks] to extort more assistance from the global community, and such an arrangement would be as fragile as it would be distasteful. There would always be the danger of the North Koreans cheating. . . And, despite charges that this is an irrational regime, this North Korea would truly be irrational to give up its current weapons entirely.They have seen what happened to Saddam Hussein's Iraq and Mummar Gaddafi's Libya when these weapons were not within reach."
And, on the Iran nuclear deal:
The president refused to certify the [Iran nuclear] deal, but not because the Iranians materially breached the JCPOA. He simply declared that the agreement was no longer in the strategic interests of the United States (which Senator Corker's 2015 bill allowed him to do), dutifully bashed the Iranians, and then, despite the tough rhetoric, declined to do much more, other than effectively putting the Iranians on notice that the nuclear deal would not inhibit him in responding to Tehran's aggression elsewhere. In effect, he was telling the Iranians, "If you want to break the deal, go ahead and break the deal. The deal's not that important to me." That had the effect of freeing the United States to go after all the other things the Iranians were doing, but for now, little would change. . . . My sense was that the president had gotten to make his speech, fulfill a campaign promise, and publicly dissociate himself from another key element of his predecessor's legacy.
And, on Russian involvement in Syria:
Russia certainly has a terrorist problem, and Moscow was certainly bombing in Syria, but it had not really been bombing ISIS. Russian strikes were carefully coordinated with the fire and movement of Assad's forces to expand Syrian government control against the rebel opposition, including factions armed and supported by the United States. Russia's goals in Syria were more about regime survival, Russian spheres of influence, and East-West competition than they were about jihadists.

In general (no pun intended), I found Gen. Hayden's perspective to be similar to FBI Director Comey's, in that he'd make observations, compare them with the historical norm, offer rationale as to why the norm is the established norm, then watch the fallout and deal with it as best he could. It's difficult to take a "not my circus, not my monkeys" approach when you're talking about the DOJ, the IC, or the executive branch of the federal government -- particularly when men like Hayden and Comey have spent their lives supporting the cause and working tirelessly to do the right thing. Though Gen. Hayden's book brought more of a world view to the matter, certain topics regarding the Trump Administration were common between them: President Trump's demand for fealty ("loyalty" is part of the title of Comey's book), his penchant for "going with his gut," his addictions to "divisive use" of social media and to Fox network infotainment programming, and "his challenged relationship with the truth."

With . . . a president who has imposed an overpowering cult of loyalty on his administration, the ghost of politicization is always lingering close by for sincere but conflicted senior officials.

It has also become the habit of President Trump, drained of his moral authority by repeated untruths, to rely on that of his key subordinates. And in so doing, he adds the erosion of personal reputation to the damage he is doing to the institutions of government.

In the chapter titled "The Future of Truth," Gen. Hayden referred to the president as "spontaneous, instinctive, ahistorical, and transactional;" he later offered in summary, "Donald Trump does not appeal to 'the better angels of our nature.'"

A friend of mine, a security veteran like myself, told me that the [Trump Administration] reminded him of an upside-down duck. Rather than a visible calm above the surface while paddling like hell beneath it, the administration is visibly frenetic (often stimulated by the president's tweets), but there has been less evidence of much going on beneath the surface in terms of developing an overarching, coherent strategy.

Hayden is not entirely critical of the Trump Administration. He is careful to note there were some events with respect to the Middle East and which he thought were handled relatively well because swift military action was taken when needed (you'd think this might appeal to a Four-Star Air Force General).


Why this book appealed to me

The book appealed to me specifically because Gen. Hayden is an IC professional, and had front row seats to each of the events he recounts. Gen. Hayden offered a reasoned perspective and especially shined when recounting the complexity of different "problems" (an IC term referring to international situations requiring study; "the Syria problem", "the Iran problem," et cetera) sensitivity to which the new executive hadn't yet acquired.

Perhaps the most enlightening information presented was the work of an analyst named Clint Watts, who discovered the Russian disinformation operations over social media back in 2014, and correctly deduced they would attempt a campaign against the United States during the 2016 election cycle. Watts' analysis of ISIS' use of social media for recruting operations enabled him and his team to observe connections between a Syrian/Iranian troll network and Russian social media accounts. Analysis of these links convinced him that Russia was actively operating a disinformation campaign over modern social media platforms. By 2015, Watts noted the Russians were beginning to target the US "by grabbing any divisive social issue they could identify", and found that Twitter and Facebook were ideal platforms for these operations because of our tendencies toward insular groups with similar views: "With tailored news feeds . . . voters see 'only stories and opinions suiting their preferences and biases -- ripe condition for Russian disinformation campaigns."

Finally, I rather enjoy the double-entendre of the book's title. "The Assault on Intelligence" can be understood both in the sense that the IC was, and still is, being bullied by the executive branch of the federal government, and in the sense that some of the president's antics and/or those of the Trump Administration have been... blatantly dumb ("It appears that [Sec. of State Tillerson] actually did call the president a 'fucking moron'").

So... there's that.


Would I recommend this book?

Would I recommend this book? Yes and no. It's a lot to fight through. I was attracted to it because I wanted the view of a career military officer who ran two of the most powerful IC organizations in the history of the modern world. In exchange for my attention, I've primarily received useful perspective on "problems" I've been working to understand and third-party assessments of national events I've seen or read about (complete with fact-checking -- recall the end notes).

As I said at the start, people don't eat bran because it's tasty; they eat it because it's good for them. In my view, Gen. Hayden's book is good for us to read because it's good for us to understand the impact the Trump Administration and recent events have had on the IC, and on the public the IC so tirelessly serves.



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2018.05.10Early Thoughts on The Assault on Intelligence

The title of the book 'The Assault on Intelligence' by Gen. Michael Hayden
Image credit: Penguin Press

The cover of 'The Assault on Intelligence' by Gen. Michael Hayden
Image credit: Penguin Press

If I had to characterize Gen. Hayden's The Assault on Intelligence: American National Security in an Age of Lies as a food, or a food component, I'd say it's bran: it's meant for more mature audiences, and you don't eat it because it's tasty; you eat it because it's good for you.

Also, too much at once can become hard to chew.

I should have guessed that a book written by a Four-Star General would contain heavy doses of history. Gen. Hayden shows he was an astute student of the same: In his description of different administrations he served, he offers four paradigms of American presidency, as framed by Walter Russell Mead in his 2001 book, Special Providence: American Foreign Policy and How it Changed the World. Gen. Hayden bins President Trump squarely in the camp of President Andrew Jackson and those of his ilk: largely uninterested in foreign affairs until his ire is provoked, and with a foreign policy generally informed by intense patriotism. I find the comparison helpful, because it offers a lens through which the Trump Administration's actions may be viewed -- put another way, it offers some kind of paradigm for the behavior, which is better than simply wondering what the Hell will happen next.



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2018.05.08Next Read

The title of the book 'The Assault on Intelligence' by Gen. Michael Hayden
Image credit: Penguin Press

The cover of 'The Assault on Intelligence' by Gen. Michael Hayden
Image credit: Penguin Press

Today I picked Gen. Hayden's The Assault on Intelligence: American National Security in an Age of Lies as my next read.

General Hayden is the former Director of the National Security Agency and former Director of the Central Intelligence Agency.

Yes I want to read what he has to say. Here's what The Washington Post thought.



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2018.04.22A Higher Loyalty

The title of the new book 'A Higher Loyalty' by James Comey
Image credit: Flatiron Books

 

Every so often one gets lucky enough to find someone to align with -- someone to look up to. I met such a person a few years ago. I reported to him directly in a position with a firm based on the east coast. I found him to have a strong moral compass, a love for engineering, and an unmatched drive for excellence in our solutions and our people. The company fell on troubled times and I don't work for him anymore, but I feel it's important for me to stay in contact with him. It doesn't have anything to do with employment -- it's about remaining connected to a leader I admire.

In A Higher Loyalty, Former FBI Director James Comey writes about the stuff we saw in the news -- the Clinton email scandal, the Russia investigation, his relationship with President Trump -- the headliines that made him a household name. But his perspective on these events isn't as important as how he came to make the decisions he made. For that, Comey prepares us by offering images of formative moments from his youth and early career, describing people who inspired him and events that terrified and taught him; the history that provided him the tools to evaluate and make the difficult choices in the best interest of the FBI and the American public it serves.

The attentive reader will come to understand Mr. Comey as a private man who dedicated himself to honesty and truth, and in turn, that dedication helped him navigate what I consider as the most politically turbulent time for our nation this century. This book is not just about current events; it's about what good leadership looks like, and what poor leadership looks like. It's about the difference between loyalty to one's values and mission and loyalty to a person. And over the course of the book, one will come to understand how badly we need people like Mr. Comey at the highest levels of our federal government.

And I feel connected to another leader I admire.



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